A Week Behind The Great Firewall Of China
Living in a world of only Chinese apps — no Google, Facebook, Twitter! — made me appreciate how remarkable the country’s Internet actually is.
BY EVELINE CHAO
Last year, the Chinese government made me open a Yahoo account. Well, sort of. I was headed to China for the first time in four years, and I knew I would have a difficult time accessing Gmail and Google and Facebook and the numerous other sites that are blocked in China but essential to my digital life in the U.S. I asked around, and somebody told me that Astrill, one of the better-known VPNs out there, no longer worked on iPhone. The government had managed to squash it, too.
At that point, since I was only going for a week, I decided I didn’t feel like paying for a VPN, and besides, I’m always aspiring to spend less time on my phone. Just before my flight though, I received a few work emails, and had second thoughts about going off the grid. So, I opened an email account with Yahoo (which is not blocked in China) and set my Gmail to forward to it.
Off I went to Beijing — and into the parallel universe that is the Chinese Internet. Behind the filters that collectively make up the so-called Great Firewall, I would be unable to access huge swaths of the rest of the web, and restricted to (mostly native) apps and software and websites approved and monitored by the Chinese government. And I would find that, thanks to China’s homegrown digital ecosystem, life behind the firewall wasn’t exactly the exercise in deprivation that I’d expected.
MONDAY: IN THE KINGDOM OF WECHAT
Upon landing, I take the airport express into central Beijing. As in the U.S., everyone on the train is engrossed in their smartphones. I don’t have a SIM card yet, so there’s nothing for me to do except stare at them as they stare at their phones.
Had I been planning to stay behind the firewall forever, I might have occupied myself by pulling out my phone and deleting Gmail, Facebook, WhatsApp, Slack, Venmo, Paypal, Snapchat, Skype, Uber, Lyft, Shazam, and Google Maps. If it were possible, I could have deleted my text messaging and voice call buttons, too. That’s because in China, there’s one app that does what all of those apps do: WeChat.
Owned by the Chinese Internet giant Tencent, and modeled off Japan’s LINE, WeChat’s integration of social media with free messaging and calls has won it 650 million users. (It has also benefitted from increasingly strict censorship of Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, which has sent tens of millions of former Weibo users into WeChat’s perhaps less overtly censored embrace.) Most of WeChat’s users are within China, but close to 100 million are elsewhere around the globe. This has raised security concerns in the U.S. and other countries, given the likelihood of Chinese government surveillance of users.
The last two VPNs she installed were eventually blocked by the government.
My first day in Beijing, WeChat — in Chinese,Wēixìn (literally, “micro message”) — is how I get in touch with old friends and colleagues in the area. One of them, a Chinese friend named Carol, I haven’t heard from in a while. We used to keep in touch via Facebook, especially during the year she studied abroad in England, but in recent years, she’s stopped using it much. We also used to email a little, but she stopped answering emails at a certain point, too.
Now, Carol replies to my WeChat and invites me to come to an exercise class the next day. I say yes. Then I ask if she can recommend a good VPN for iPhone. She replies that she doesn’t have a VPN on her phone and, at the moment, doesn’t have one on her computer either. The last two she installed were eventually blocked by the government. She ends this message with a frowny emoticon.
I’m jet-lagged all day and am back in bed by early evening scrolling through my “Moments” on WeChat. It’s much the same as my Facebook feed — food photos, links, philosophical rambles — but with a higher proportion of drunken karaoke photos.